What are antioxidants and how they can help make you, the athlete, stronger and healthier.
Ya know how apples, pears, and bananas turn brown after you slice 'em? This is because of a process called oxidation. The product of oxidation is free radicals.
If you're a science nerd, here's how oxidation works: oxygen is metabolized by the cells on the fruit's surface (oxidation). Free radicals are formed-- these are atoms with unpaired electrons. Having an unpaired electron makes them really unstable, so they attack surrounding stable molecules and steal electrons. This initiates a domino process of electron stealing and eventually causes cell damage.
And in true "same-same-but-different" fashion, when our bodies are exposed to oxidation, free radicals form- but instead of turning brown (although this is essentially what happens), our bodies age and suffer from chronic disease.
Oxidation occurs from everything-- it happens in our normal metabolic processes like breathing, eating, being in the sun, and with normal exposure to cigarettes, pollution, alcohol, etc. So the more you engage in unhealthy behaviors like smoking, tanning, drinking, or just general stressful living, the more free radicals. These suckers are thought to pay a role in aging, cancer, heart disease and other neurological diseases.
Research since the ‘80’s has found that exercise and strenuous physical activity produces free radicals in our bodies. This seems really counterintuitive, right? Isn’t exercise supposed to decrease your risk all of those diseases mentioned above? Yes, exercise increases formation of free radicals. No, this does not mean your couch potato status is excusable. Listen up, cause this is just more proof of how freaking smart our bodies/anatomy are...
If you understand a minimal amount of anatomy, read the following- and if not, skip down to the next paragraph for a little analogy (we can’t all be science nerds). Exercise increases the ATP cycle prompting the formation of free radicals (if you’re into the actual biochem of it, knock yourself out here…). But, if you work out consistently, the formation of free radicals actually trains your cells to increase response rate and enzymes for when outside free radicals and oxidizing agents show up (i.e. pollution). So our bodies adapt to repairing damaged cells and are better able to handle it when we’re in contact with environmental free radicals. Newer research says that because of these mechanisms, moderate exercise acts as an antioxidant.
If you just skipped the above, let’s talk analogies. Think about football (and don’t make fun of my lack of terminology). It’s your first time on the team and you haven’t worked out all summer. At the first scrimmage you get tackled and the next day you feel like you got hit by a truck (initial free radical formation). This happens the first few games, but since you’re working out and training, gradually your bod gets stronger and can handle a tackle like it’s nothin’ (adaptation). So at the game against your arch-rivals who stole your buddies girlfriend (aka outside free radicals like cigarettes), you can handle any tackle and your main concern is running circles around the other team and what you’ll do for the touchdown dance (resistance to those environmental free radicals).
Point being, when you’re lazy and not working out, your bod is more vulnerable to oxidative stress and disease. When you’re working out consistently, you’re more resistant. So think of daily exercise as boot camp for your cells, too. Research seems to show, though, that consistency is key. “Weekend Warriors” who are sedentary during the week and then engage in really intense physical activity on the weekends may cause more harm than good.
Okay great, your body is awesome and can adapt to defend itself. But even if you’re consistently working out your cells still need further protection, so what's the best step in defending against these free radical villains?
ANTIOXIDANTS! They protect our body cells from damage caused by free radicals, and can help to repair damage already done.
Science nerds tune in, everyone else, move along: antioxidants have extra electrons, so they bind to free radicals, neutralizing them by donating one of their own electrons. That domino chain of free radicals stealing electrons is dun-zo. Simply put, antioxidants help reduce your risk of those diseases mentioned earlier, and keep you looking younger (and no, this isn't an Acai pitch)
So where can you find 'em? Fruits, veggies, nuts, grains, soy, and even chocolate (although don't get crazy here!). Things with COLOR!!
No, the existence of antioxidants doesn't mean you can neutralize tons of tanning and chain smoking by working out and eating lots of veggies. Those Jersey Shore kids have no chance at reversing the damage done to that skin (let alone damage to other things, like reputations, but that’s neither here nor there). We don’t want to have to fix things, we want to take the preventative route, so get exercising consistently and getting those fruits, veggies, and whole foods into your diet!